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Leadership bias

Do we believe providing change management training is one of the guaranteed enablers for better business results?


By Ian Hendry

Another Google factoid crossed my desk this week. These usually find their way to me because Google thinks and acts differently and, according to some employees, we should replicate many of the things they do.

Unquestionably well-intentioned, but often the ideas are too extreme for a conventional hierarchy to absorb. This week’s gem, however, was certainly not radical.

In short, Google allegedly spends as much time discussing projects that have gone wrong as it does talking about successful initiatives. Doing the diagnosis on any mis-step, figuring out what’s been learned and quickly moving on, maintains positive momentum.

To this, and all other ideas, in terms of organizational acceptance, I have to consider what organizational bias might pre-exist.

Pause for a moment and consider how you think about mature industries, for example. Do you naturally think of them as being heavily structured, with compliance being deeply imbedded into their DNA? If so, do you picture command and control leaders who are quick to search for blame when something goes wrong?

Have you ever heard of an executive being coined an “old school leader” when a fresh idea has quickly been declined? In such cases, it’s doubtful innovation would be a core strength.

I would suspect many of us believe traditional organizations, steeped in following the rules implicitly, will go the way of the dodo bird.

Now let’s imagine you have the good fortune of being the head of the L&D department, responsible for developing leaders. Isn’t your job to develop leaders fit for that organization and that culture?

Needless to say, the leadership expectations would be somewhat different from having the same role at Google or another organization constantly in the midst of change.

So what it takes to succeed as a leader is going to be predicated by the environment within which a person operates. Consequently, leadership requirements will be different.

A CEO of a public corporation will have leadership traits different from those of a CEO of a private company. A small business leader is different from a division head in a large structure. A non-profit leader is different from a political leader, or a civic leader, and so on.

So if our role includes developing leaders, what do you think is expected, and what is the leadership bias we carry with us? By now it’s obvious that I would assert that we each have bias.

Whether it is in our upbringing, where we have worked, the leadership we’ve encountered, the biographies we’ve read or other factors, we have built up a view of what leadership means. Moreover, it is our ready reference and default that automates when the topic of leadership is raised. It stands to reason it also biases our view when deciding what form leadership development takes.

Many of you will remember Michael Couch, who presented at a SCNetwork meeting last February. In an article he recently authored, he refers to a Corporate Leadership Council study of 1500 managers in 53 organizations which stated that 76 per cent of the respondents felt their learning and development function was ineffective, or very ineffective, in helping them achieve business targets.

Couch calculated that if $60 billion is spent on leadership development annually, $51 billion of that is wasted. It begs the question of who should be accountable for the lack of ROI?

For 30 years, we’ve known about the 70:20:10 Model for Learning and Development. The model holds that individuals obtain 70 per cent of their knowledge from job-related experiences, 20 per cent from interactions with others and 10 per cent from formal educational events.

If the study results are correct, there must be something desperately wrong with our assumptions if we continue to have talent spend countless hours in front of a trainer. Couch argues that training addresses knowledge, whereas we need to be developing competencies critical to business success.

Few would argue that we live in a world of change. I would suggest that a core element of the leadership development curriculum is “managing change.” There are lots of off-the shelf programs that offer such training, and even a Change Management Institute.

Do we believe that providing that training is one of the guaranteed enablers for better business results? Arguably, our learned biases lead us to conclude we’ve done our job if this training was provided, and most of the executive team would likely agree too.

However, I think Couch’s point is well made in that we should be focusing on the competencies that drive success. John Kotter observes that leaders not only manage change, they “cause change” by “establishing the vision for the future and setting the strategy for getting there.”

Remember, 76 per cent of the respondents indicate L&D is ineffective in getting the results the business needs. Surely it is time to revisit our assumptions and biases about leadership development programs?



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Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and senior vice-president and chief talent officer at Foresters in Toronto.
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